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American Law Enforcement History

As one of the three major components of the American criminal justice system, American law enforcement’s main purpose is to maintain order and investigate suspected criminal activity in this country. American law enforcement also is held responsible for deterring criminal activity and halting crimes in progress through the use of warrants, writs, and other orders of the court.

The story of American law enforcement begins in 1626, when the New York City Sheriff’s Office was founded. Shortly thereafter, Boston formed its own “Night Watch” in 1635. This organization later transformed into the Boston Police Department in 1838, which served as the United States’ first local modern police department. Similarly, the New York City Police Department evolved out of the New York City Sheriff’s Office in 1845.

With the invention of law enforcement assets such as the two-way radio, telephone, and police car in the early 20th century, American law enforcement experienced a significant surge and advancement in its ability to respond to crime and serve the public. These changes also led to a change in strategy, as police adopted a more reactive strategy centered around responding to calls for service.

August “Gus” Vollmer was a leading figure in the development of the United States’ criminal justice system in the early 20th century. As the first police chief of Berkeley, California, Vollmer adapted many principals that he culled from both his own military experience and criminal justice material from Europe. He was able to establish a bicycle patrol and a motorized force, allowing police officers to cover more ground with greater efficiency. He also created the first centralized police records system that led to greater organization for criminal investigations.

Another one of Vollmer’s innovations to the field of American law enforcement was his use of the lie detector in police work. He also encouraged the training and employment of both female and African American police officers.

American law enforcement saw additional shifts in the 1960s, when more focus was placed on community relations in the wake of urban conflict and racial tension. One of the elements of this reactive reform was an increased diversity in the hiring of law enforcement officials. 30 years later, community-policing strategies became another key element in an ever-adapting law enforcement system, based on the belief that communal interaction and support (such as community members helping to identify suspects, detain vandals, and call attention to local problems) could help reduce fear and crime. City-approved neighborhood watch programs are one of the more well known examples of this community-based approach to American law enforcement.

By studying the progression of the American law enforcement system, criminal justice professionals are able to gain a better understanding of the changes that need to be made in order to maintain a sense of security and safety within their communities.